A new blog address...

Following our decision here at the Independent to rid ourselves of LiveJournal, the Mabiblogion is no more.

But don't despair!

Anyone desperate to read my infrequent musings on Welsh politics and the media can find my shiny new blog in the notebook section of the Independent blog pages. Or alternatively just visit here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/author/robwilliams/ - so pop over and have a look, and leave a comment!

For those of you kind enough to include links to this blog i'd be grateful if you'd now add the address of my new one.

And, of course, as ever you can find me ranting away on twitter here: www.twitter.com/themabiblogion

Thanks to all those who added comments on themabiblogion and I hope to see you at the new place....

Hyperlocal News: Journalism without the journalists

Print journalists are dinosaurs who crush innovation and entrepreneurial endeavour. Because they struggle to comprehend the Brave New Digital World around them, these Jurassic beasts have an inclination to stamp on it, reveling in the destruction they wreak.

Or that’s what some would have you believe.

New media scepticism is often caricatured as either neo-Luddism or rampant professional snobbery. It is journalists, in particular those unimpressed by new media, who are most often subjected to the ‘get out of the way, Granddad’ sneering of the Geek Elite.

However, while pessimism about new media is sometimes driven by a fear of change combined with plain bloody-mindedness, at other times it is driven by a hard-nosed quest for facts about the future of a much-cherished profession – preferably without the hype. And there is an awful lot of hype.

This year, as every year since 2004, it is predicted that the trend will be towards hyperlocal community-level news. It is reasonable to assume that this tech-prophecy will once again remain unfulfilled, or at best emerge as something far short of the revolution we are regularly promised.

This is, however, not to say that there isn’t a revolution of sorts taking place. In the US for instance, AOL, CNN and even the mighty Google are making investments in the local idea. AOL purchased two local start-ups in 2009: Patch, which delivers local news to communities; and Going, which publishes event listings.

Aggregators Outside.in and Everyblock have been bought by CNN and MSNBC respectively. All moving in the right direction, you might say, and indeed there is a lot to be said for Outside.in in particular as a model that succeeds in delivering local information on an enormous scale. Some 57,830 neighbourhoods can’t be wrong, can they? However, what is scarce on this site, and indeed, on other similar aggregators is actual journalism. Political reporting is particularly thin on the ground. And this is a worry.

Here in the UK there are quality hyperlocal sites delivering interesting and varied content along the lines of that which used to occupy the pages of our local rags. The Lichfield Blog, and in particular, the William Perrin Kings Cross Environment site are excellent examples.

The Lichfield Blog is a not-for-profit site run by volunteers and contributors, both professional and amateur. It uses the excellent Addiply self-service advertising system to generate enough money to cover costs. But despite being very good, it’s not a model that will help save or improve journalism. Indeed it is a model that if not challenged could potentially put paid journalists out of business. It doubtless wasn’t the aim of the Lichfield Blog to replace local news media. It is a site that attempts to fill the gap left by departing or failing local media. Despite this it does point towards some of the dangers that journalism as a profession faces.

William Perrin, who featured in Guardian editor Alan Rusbridgers’ recent Cudlipp Lecture, established the extremely good campaigning Kings Cross Environment hyperlocal site. Like the not-for-profit Lichfield Blog, this site doesn’t offer much hope for journalists, either. In fact, it is perhaps best that sensitive hacks look away now.

Quoted in Rusbridgers’ lecture, Perrin says:

‘…we have a very strong community of people around here who send us stuff. None of the people who work with me are journalists. I’m not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination; it’s an entirely volunteer effort…what I do in my community some people label journalism, it’s a label I actually resist.’

Rusbridger goes on to point out that depending on an individual’s perspective,

‘…you may find that vision of new ways of connecting and informing communities inspiring or terrifying.’

He concludes that it is in fact both inspiring and terrifying. It is hard to disagree with him. In the sense that large media owners no longer hold all the cards and control local media, it is inspiring. However, it is also terrifying because this used to be a big part of the job that journalists did.

William Perrin is not dependent on the Kings Cross Environment site for his week in week out income. He has another job, which pays the bills. The Kings Cross site, like the Lichfield Blog is run by people who make their money elsewhere. It is, without wanting to sound disrespectful, a hobby.

It is perhaps at this point important to remember again who is to blame for the current sorry state of affairs in local journalism. The singular failure of media corporations to respond to the challenge of the internet is the cause of the demise of local newspapers. This, in conjunction with a single-minded drive for profit, has meant they are now publishing a product that is not only out-of-date but often of a poor quality. Newspaper owners have nearly destroyed local reporting by not moving quickly enough to change their business models, and not investing enough in the newspapers prior to that model changing. In the meantime the gap left by the decline of local newspapers has started to be filled by enthusiasts. It is not the enthusiasts’ fault that their projects are now being touted as media which will, depending on the commentator, either save or destroy journalism. They are not to blame. But there is a danger that unless journalists and media organisations start to take grass-roots projects seriously they will again be guilty of responding too late to a paradigm shift in the industry.

While hyperlocals may represent a threat should major newspaper groups not act quickly to develop a local news model, they could also represent an opportunity. It might not be the opportunity as touted by hyperlocal disciples, but it is certainly there. So how can media organisations, or journalists, utilise the hyperlocal model?

The first thing to recognise is so obvious as to almost not need saying. Media organisations, and hyperlocal writers and bloggers, want different things from the local audience. Sites like the Lichfield Blog require community engagement and encourage community involvement. People are doubtless motivated by lots of things to contribute to these sorts of sites. However, it is fair to say, that it is not money that drives them to volunteer and contribute. It is most likely a sense of community spirit. On the other hand, media organisations seeking to grab their share of the local news audience are not doing it for altruistic reasons. They want local money. This disparity in objectives allows us to make clear a distinction that is not emphasised often enough. Local journalism sites and hyperlocal news sites are not the same thing. The objectives are different, the business models are different, the people involved are different and they are involved for different reasons.

However, despite the differences in objectives, these models do have something to offer each other. Amateur hyperlocals often produce original and quirky content. These are the kind of stories that could be useful to local news sites run by the mainstream media. In reward for sharing this content the community correspondents could receive a wider audience and part of the advertising revenue. Some media groups have already experimented with this model using local correspondents in postcode specific blogs, but so far it has been tentative.

Elsewhere in the world the so-called Pro-Am model for news production is being adopted with much less reticence. In the Czech Republic, for instance, PPF Media’s hyperlocal project ‘Nase Adresa’ (our address) is an ambtious attempt at fusing the talents of enthusiasts and  professional journalists. The potential benefits of this type of model are huge providing the relationship remains a fair one. Local correspondents would need to be correctly remunerated for their work and treated with the respect they deserve, while at the same time recognising that it’s only right they should play second fiddle to people who do the job for a living.

Mainstream media providers could also assist with journalism training for talented and keen community correspondents. This would help broaden the demographic of trained journalists and produce a new generation of hacks who have trained on the job and in their communities.

It’s a small democratisation of the media model, and it’s one that mainstream media can live with. A quiet revolution of cooperation rather than the shouty belligerence of some hyperlocal advocates. It’s also a proposition that journalists can live with. It’s a model that doesn’t replace them with untrained amateurs but encourages working alongside those enthusiasts while benefiting from their local knowledge and contacts. It’s evolution rather than revolution.

Sadly, it’s hard to see how new media hyperlocal start-ups that are not going to be based on non-profit models can succeed within the current environment. New and interesting approaches to advertising might help. The excellent Addiply system, for instance, helps publishers and advertisers to navigate their way around the complex world of online advertising. However, despite these innovations it is clear that making hyperlocal news pay from the position of an independent start-up is incredibly difficult. It may not even be possible in the light of the incredible growth of Twitter and its ability to show trending topics by region. Even Twitter is going local.

The only way that start-ups by groups of journalists could be profitable is through government funding, and in Wales it makes sense that this is considered. With some real funding they might have a chance of success.

In the short and medium term, however, if our interest is in rescuing journalism, sadly, we must again look to the mainstream media. The hyperlocal trend is something they have to embrace. And it’s about time, too. It’s time for them to get back to doing local reporting, and involve those that filled the gap whilst they were catching up. Of course it should have happened sooner and in some cases it’s perhaps already too late.

Most print journalists aren’t the progress-hating dinosaurs they are sometimes made out to be. But lots of the organisations they work for are. And, unfortunately, in some cases, they have awoken from their slumber too late to do anything about the huge incoming meteorite.

First published at

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Lots of local newspapers are rubbish - I doubt we will actually miss them.

The inevitability of the closure of yet more local newspapers across Wales is no consolation for those who have already lost their jobs. The latest newspapers to fall victim to print media cuts are the Neath and Port Talbot Guardians. Their owner, Media Wales, has decided to close them due to the ‘tough economic times.’

A range of AMs and MPs have expressed their feelings about the closures. These have ranged from the vaguely disappointed (Alun Ffred Jones) to the ill-informed (Hywel Francis) to the plain ranty (Bethan Jenkins).

The fuss about the closure of these two titles is at odds with the inactivity of the Welsh Assembly. They are still failing to get to grips with the problems facing the Welsh media. One report after another has made useless, impractical and often wrong recommendations about how to rescue Welsh press and broadcasting. This inaction has been a factor in the demise of the Welsh print media. However, it has not been the only factor.

The failure of the Welsh government has been mirrored by the inability of the print media outlets to change and refine their output. They too have not responded to the problem. This inability to change and respond to the problems they face looks a lot like falling on one’s sword. If there is still a place for the local newspaper (and I am not sure there is) they need to make changes quickly. The ability to view local, regional, national and international news at the click of a button has made them largely obsolete. The remaining strength of the local newspaper lies in reporting things that don’t make it out of the area. The trouble is that in becoming ever more reliant on press releases and producing a torrent of worthless, badly written drivel, they have lost their market.

Good local reporting will always find an audience whether it’s online or in print, it is this that they no longer do. And it is this that makes them not only obsolete but also largely worthless.

The argument that plurality of media is central to the functioning of a democratic society is a cornerstone of media theory. But should it really be applied to defend some of the newspapers we see going under? The defence of plurality is often churned out despite the fact that the newspapers in question aren’t any good. Too often in our local rags we see press-releases rewritten and fashioned into an imitation of news. There is too little actual journalism and too little writing that challenges those in local government.  

However, the mantra of plurality has been repeated so often it is now used to defend the sort of newspapers we would be better off without. One such classic example of this type of journalism is about to bite the dust in my old hometown. The dire Wrexham Chronicle, a poorly subbed, badly designed, ugly little free-sheet, is now to close. Sad as it is for those journalists involved, it is categorically not a tragedy for the plurality of the local media.

The importance of plurality is that it gives readers a range of perspectives on social and political issues. It creates debate and holds those who are in power to account.

True plurality is plurality of opinion, and a variety of opinions is sadly not guaranteed by having a variety of local newspapers. Local newspapers have become so homogenous you can rarely tell them apart. They cover similar sorts of events week in week out and year after year.

If we only value local newspapers for the contribution they make to the plurality of the media, we are surely missing the point aren’t we?

It is what they say that matters – not the fact that they are there.

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free counters

Broadband isn’t just for geeks you know

So, what type of digital divide do the people of Wales want?

Do they want the digital divide that currently exists? In this one, broadband take up rates as low as 40% are commonplace. Internet inequality mirrors social inequality. Older people, those on low incomes, and those with fewer qualifications are half as likely to take up broadband as those who are younger, better off and in managerial or professional jobs. In some defined social groups there was a shocking figure of 26% for broadband take up. 

This is the type of internet inequality outlined in a report by the Bevan Foundation entitled Digital Wales, Divided Wales. The report is based upon research which found 99% of households have access to broadband in Wales, and approximately 60% take it up. Infrastructure, therefore, for this generation of broadband is clearly not a problem. All but 1% of people in Wales can receive broadband if they wish. The problem is, according to the Bevan Foundation, that they don’t want it. Engagement, they claim is the key question facing digital Wales. The report states,

‘Broadband take up has undoubtedly increased rapidly, but take up amongst some socio-economic groups – particularly amongst the lowest income households and amongst older people – remains low’

The regional and geographical variations in take up tend to mirror the socio-economic factors. In short, those who are socially deprived don’t take up broadband. The report states that the overwhelming reason people give for not accessing the internet is that ‘they don’t want to’.  Although the report points out,

‘This reason inevitably includes lack of awareness, lack of skills and lack of opportunity as well as simple ‘choice’ and should not be taken at face value. It is also worth noting that perceived cost was a factor in lack of access to the internet in a substantial minority of households, particularly working households, and this too may be a factor for further consideration.’

The report concludes that digital inequality could have a serious effect on the ability of individuals to function in society as more and more goods and services become available online and nowhere else. This is an important and vital report, and not just for Wales. Internet inequality is a major factor all over the country, and it does tend to follow the patterns of social inequality.

The fact that the highest take up of broadband services in Britain is in the South East of England, and the lowest is in the North East of England tells you everything you need to know.

So, should public policy be directed to increasing the number of people from those low take up groups to use the internet? My belief is that it should. The key factors affecting people’s decisions in these instances are a lack of information about what is available to them, and a prohibitive cost. Digital Britain should deal with the issue relating to cost, as 2Mb becomes the standard across the UK, but it is up to the Assembly and the UK government to look at how to encourage these groups in society to engage with the forthcoming digital revolution.

The second type of internet inequality is one that relates to speed. Ofcom has found that Welsh consumers receive much slower broadband speed than the rest of the UK and that the top broadband speeds are not available anywhere in Wales. The top download speed in Wales is a shocking 4.3Mbps. Now, I realise that here in London we are a bit spoiled with up to 50Mbps, but this discrepancy is patently ridiculous. As Rhodri Williams of Ofcom put it on the Wales Online site,

'Broadband is not just something for businesses, or for geeks, it’s now something that you need for doing school homework, or getting access to the best consumer deals. It’s vital for many people, the majority of people in society to have access to broadband. The number of services dependent on broadband is only going to increase.'

The problem is that the infrastructure in Wales is made up largely of copper wire connections. These connections are, of course, considerably slower than the Virgin Media fibre optic cables. The Assembly Government ‘Regional Innovative Broadband Support Scheme’ (RIBS) has ensured that every exchange in Wales is now broadband enabled. Therefore the Digital Britain report guarantee of 2Mbps seems a bit of a damp squib. Lots and lots of people in Wales already have that speed, and they are not happy with it. There are also lots of people in Wales who simply don’t want to take up broadband services because of expense, or because they don’t really understand what it could do for them.

So it seems either way, a fair digital Wales is looking ever more distant.

The issue of internet inequality is one that, at the moment, reflects social inequality. It is, however, important not to simply sit back and criticise those who are campaigning for ever faster speeds. In a years time 2Mbps will look even slower in the light of 100Mbps and above becoming more commonplace. It is important to be fighting for equality regarding speed as well as equality of social engagement with the internet. To do one without the other is pointless. If WAG does manage to encourage people from a broader social spectrum to take up broadband, all their good work will be lost if those people then find that their broadband is slower than the rest of the country, and that it doesn’t allow them to do all the things they want to.

It’s also worth considering this data in relation to digital media start-ups and the online news revolution in Wales. Investment in Web based TV channels seems pointless if your viewers are going to struggle to connect and be able to view live streaming video. It also limits the number of people who are going to view what you are doing, as in some areas internet take up is so low there just won’t be an audience.

In order to get digital Wales up and running and working properly there must be proper investment in fibre optic cable. This must be done alongside encouraging those disaffected members of our society to engage with this potentially life-changing technology.

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My Welsh Blogosphere – The Mabiblogion

When Michael Jackson died last week, TMZ, the celebrity gossip site, was first to break the news. It took nearly an hour for anyone in the mainstream UK media to jump on the bandwagon.

Sky News, in desperation, simply reported that TMZ was reporting that Michael Jackson had died. The BBC followed suit. The way in which this story broke, (nicely analysed by Charlie Brooker in his column this week), showed just how important legitimacy is in the online news environment. There is a clear hierarchy of trust in online news. TMZ may well have broken the story first, but nobody really believed them.

The common response to a large breaking news story is to visit a trusted and reliable source i.e. the BBC, Sky, or a reliable newspaper website. You don’t bother with the others, because, by and large, you know they are not to be trusted. This is the reason people don’t visit blogs for news.

This is a useful point because it neatly illustrates the difference between what a blog does and what news websites do.

Bloggers rarely break news. They seldom investigate political scandals or uncover scoops for themselves. When they do get a scoop the story has often been gifted to them. Bloggers have neither the time nor the resources to carry out in-depth investigatory work. The vast majority are not paid to blog and have no journalism training.

It is a bit strange, therefore, that some folk, when assessing the Welsh blogosphere, are disappointed it isn’t doing these things. This is the role of the Welsh media.

Bloggers express their opinions on the issues of the day, and this is what political blogs are best at. Even the much-trumpeted Guido mostly does comment. He takes a news story, adds a link, and posts his take on it. Blogs are rarely objective, rarely non-partisan and are usually the expression of an individual’s personal political beliefs.  

There are also, of course, politicians’ blogs. The worst type of politicians blog is filled with press-release guff. The best are the ones that are off-message and give a genuine opinion. Likewise, blogs by professional journalists are best when they are off-message, taking a risk or being irreverent.

Aside from the politicians and hacks, the broad range of discussions online about Welsh politics is impressive. The variety of voices and political perspectives is something we should celebrate and be very proud of. When I started the Mabiblogion back in January I was astonished at how welcoming an environment the Welsh blogosphere was. This is something we should applaud.

The Welsh blogosphere is in great health. We’re a gobby, argumentative lot with plenty to say about Wales and its future. This is exactly how it should be.

Now, if only Welsh journalists would do their jobs, we might actually get somewhere.

This is post twenty four of a series of articles appearing at www.welshbloggers.co.uk giving a chance to Welsh bloggers to have their say on the state of the blogosphere and where it's going.

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